War with Syria? Not yet

War with Syria? Not yet

When Syrian forces shot down a Turkish jet last Friday, a whole new crisis began. Media headlines focused on the Syrian aggression, and speculated on whether we were heading to war. The search for the two Turkish pilots who apparently fell to the sea has proved fruitless and it has become painfully obvious that, after the Mavi Marmara incident, foreign guns once again ended Turkish lives over the Mediterranean.

That is why everybody was waiting for yesterday’s weekly parliamentary address by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. He gave a speech that was strong enough to condemn and threaten the Syrian regime, but also cautious enough to avoid an escalation that would take Turkey to an inevitable war.

“Turkey’s friendship is valuable, but everyone should know Turkey’s wrath is equally furious,” Erdoğan said. He then explained that from now on, Turkey’s rules of engagement with Syria had been raised to a new level: “Any military element that approaches the Turkish border from Syria by posing a security risk will be regarded as a threat, and will be treated as a military target.”

That means that this plane incident is not a “casus belli,” or a cause of war, but future acts of aggression by the Syrian regime may be. So, the thugs of Damascus should behave.

I think this was the right attitude for Turkey. A war with Syria, or with anybody, would be a disastrous adventure. It would cost innocent lives, ruin the Turkish economy and overshadow Turkish “soft power.” However, looking weak in the face of aggression would also be wrong. Erdoğan seems to have found the right balance.

Another theme in Erdoğan’s speech was how and where the plane was exactly shot. He explained that this was an unarmed military jet which was on a regular flight to “test Turkey’s radar system.” The plane mistakenly violated Syrian airspace for a just a few minutes, but was then warned by its base and left it immediately. Yet the Syrians still targeted it, and shot it down over international waters.

The Syrian story, of course, is different. They claim that the plane was shot in Syrian airspace. But if they are honest about this they should disclose their radar records, as Turkey has done.

At the end of the day, this plane incident added just one more level to the tension between Turkey and Syria, which has been building up since the early months of the Arab Spring. The irony is that the two countries had up to then become great friends. Erdoğan and al-Assad had developed a close relationship, borders were opened, and Syria had become “Exhibit A” of Turkey’s “zero problems with neighbors” policy.

However, Turks who remind of those good old days between Turkey and Syria and angrily ask “what went wrong” are terribly wrong. That was a time when the al-Assad regime was not slaughtering its own people. It was a regime without democracy for sure, but it was not acting as a massacre-machine, as it is now.

The obvious truth is that the Arab Spring opened a whole chapter in the Middle East. The gap between the authoritarian regimes and their people became starker than ever. And Turkey, for its credit, has done the right thing by taking sides with the people. This should continue everywhere, especially in Syria. Turkey should be relentless in its stance against the bloody tyrannies of the region.

A footnote: Congratulations to Muhammad Morsi, the first democratically elected president of Egypt. I very much hope that he will be “the president of all Egyptians” as he promised in his inaugural speech. And all Egyptians, including those who didn’t vote for him, should give him a chance.